COVID-19 Spikes Are Nightmare Roller Coaster for Restaurants

Surging coronavirus cases across the country are forcing some restaurants to close just days after reopening

COVID-19 Spikes Are Nightmare Roller Coaster for Restaurants
Yvette Leeper-Bueno, owner of Vinateria in Harlem, says outdoor dining can't keep her restaurant afloat forever. (Courtesy Vinateria)
Jul 14, 2020

Just when they thought indoor dining was back, restaurants are being forced to close their doors again. As the number of COVID-19 cases spike in Florida, Texas, California and many other states, restaurants are grappling with health and safety guidelines that change day to day. Restaurateurs and their staffs are suffering financially while also trying to accommodate the erratically changing rules—from mandatory masks for employees to reduced capacities to outdoor dining only. At the same time, they remain focused on keeping guests and staff safe, which makes the situation ever more challenging.

"We were open as of June 17 for [indoor] dining," said David Osenbach, wine director of Providence in Los Angeles. "The restaurant in general is pretty well spaced-out, but we still had to take out a little over a quarter of our seating. Then, as of July 1, restaurants in L.A. had to stop indoor seating, and, well, since we don't have a patio, we had to revert back to doing only take-out. [It's] a little rough on the staff."

The change in guidelines for the Golden State came after a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered bars and indoor dining rooms at restaurants in 27 counties to close for at least three weeks. Yesterday, he made the requirement statewide, which means all restaurants and winery tasting rooms will shift operations outdoors, if possible.

Similarly, across the country in New York City, indoor dining was set to resume on July 6, but Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug less than five days beforehand, putting plans for indoor dining on hold indefinitely.

"Spring and summer are generally our busiest seasons," said Yvette Leeper-Bueno, owner of Vinateria in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. "Even with takeout, delivery and outdoor dining we're not doing nearly the same amount of business. It's definitely not sustainable, especially in a city like New York, where we're losing lots of nights to rain and storms, and before we know it, it'll be too cold to eat outside."

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Daniel Tucker Jr., wine director of Elements in Princeton, N.J., where restaurants also had to put indoor dining on pause, is feeling the whiplash. "Every day seems to be a new experience. We have come to learn that it's all about staying a step ahead and thinking forward. Our staff has been a big part of that."

The financial costs for restaurants to implement the health and safety guidelines are considerable. "The biggest challenge is the costs associated with the changes, costs of implementation, as well as costs of staffing with the fluctuations," said Nick Di Donato, president and CEO of Liberty Group, which owns Cibo Wine Bar in Coral Gables, Fla., where indoor dining was recently paused once again. "We brought back a significant number of salaried team members when we were able to reopen. Now, having to close again, our costs are greater than potential income." The restaurant is currently operating at 25 percent of normal revenue.

Wanting for guidance

While some restaurateurs are struggling to keep up with changing guidelines, in states like Georgia, which was one of the first states to resume indoor dining, in late April, many wish they had more guidance.

"I would say Georgia's government has leaned on a policy of individual responsibility, and I think that is a good thing most of the time," said Ryan Pernice, co-owner of Osteria Mattone in Roswell, Ga. "But there's a balance between decisive action and clearly thought-out directives. And I would like a little bit more of the latter." For Pernice and his team, Gov. Brian Kemp's loose COVID safety guidelines put restaurant owners in an uncomfortable position.

In Georgia, service industry workers are required to wear masks, but not guests. "If it's clear enough that my staff has to wear masks for your safety, why is it not then equally logical to say you need to wear masks for my team's safety?" asked Pernice. "We're all trying to find our way forward trippingly in this weird environment. I just wish I had a little bit more backup from someone who is smarter about all of this than I am."

Safety-wise, Pernice feels his team has gone above and beyond to make guests and employees feel safe by implementing precautions such as a bipolar ionization filtration system, touch-free faucets and disposable menus. He also chose not to open for indoor dining until June 1, more than a month later than he could have. "The only constraint on our capacity is me."

Trying anything to stay afloat

The financial strain on restaurants has forced many to look toward new revenue streams. Some restaurants with deep wine cellars, such as Grand Award winner Del Posto and Best of Award of Excellence winner Le Bernardin in New York, are putting thousands of bottles from their collections up for auction.

Other restaurants that don't have vast cellars to offload are hoping for additional government assistance. "We'd love to see more opportunities for financial support from the local government—things like canceling rent, providing PPP loans and creating more sales opportunities—would go a really long way in supporting small businesses, and especially 'small' restaurants," said Leeper-Bueno.

Moving forward, many restaurants hope to prove that they are safe places for guests during these uncertain times.

"I believe there is a social responsibility for the local government to be cautious, but I strongly believe restaurants are a safer environment than many other public places which are open," said Di Donato.

For Leeper-Bueno and her team, the future depends on everyone doing their part, "We're really proud of the Harlem community. So far, we've had really wonderful, respectful guests and we expect that to continue. This neighborhood is our family, and we take care of each other."

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